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Social Analysis

Social analysis is an essential tool to enable agriculturally-based investments to better reach the poor and food insecure, and to enhance their assets and their resilience to shocks. Investments in poor rural people – enabling them to build their income, assets, capabilities, voice and empowerment – are necessary to promote equitable and sustainable economic growth and to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The social analysis perspective allows planners and practitioners to shift from focusing only on particular investments or technologies to putting the human dimension – stakeholders, target groups, intended beneficiaries or other affected people – at the centre of development interventions. Social analysis starts from understanding the socio-economic and environmental context in which people live. It examines the dynamics of rural livelihoods, social diversity and gender in the context of agriculture and rural development, taking into account the evolving challenges of climate change and human migration. The findings of social analysis then guide the identification of priorities for intervention. Social analysis can be applied to any sector or subsector, and any type of development intervention or lending instrument, ranging from policy reform to investment projects/programmes/plans or technical assistance, in both urban and rural settings. The social analysis perspective is cross-cutting and it is undertaken at various stages in agency programming and project cycles; it should permeate all programme activities and not be confined solely to the interests of the social scientist.

Why undertake social analysis?

Social analysis is instrumental in designing and implementing successful pro-poor food security and nutrition policies and institutional reforms and poverty-targeted investment programmes and projects. It is fundamental for understanding the complexities of social diversity (including gender and youth) and the various dimensions of poverty (e.g. low income, lack of assets, vulnerability, exclusion, powerlessness, lack of voice and an inability to withstand shocks). The social analysis perspective enables planners and practitioners to put the human dimension – stakeholders, target groups, intended beneficiaries or other affected people – at the centre of development interventions. The contributions of social analysis – depending on how and when it is conducted – can be expected include: identification of target groups and targeting strategies; opportunities for gender mainstreaming or gender strategies; participatory mechanisms to be included in an intervention; safeguard mechanisms (see Safeguards) and appropriate social protection strategies;  operational measures to ensure poverty-inclusive and gender-equitable (see Gender) participation in, and benefit from, planned activities; and measures to enhance local ownership for sustained benefits over time.

The example below illustrates how results from social analysis can contribute to the strategic direction of project design and implementation, by making Agricultural and Rural Development (ARD) investments more proactive, people-centred and socially inclusive from the earliest stages of the programme or project

A social analysis study was undertaken as part of the design process for a community-driven development project in Latin America whose objective was to improve the livelihoods of about 100 000 rural people, living in the 500 poorest highland villages. The study included a close examination of social diversity in the project area and local institutions and leadership. It showed that, as per long- established traditional practice, the indigenous communities living in the project area were organized in administrative units that did not match the official government-defined “village” units. The indigenous administrative unit – headed by a powerful and highly respected traditional leadership council – was often larger than the typical “village” and covered a larger geographical area, cutting across more than one village.

This finding highlighted the potential risk (not previously considered) of social conflict within those indigenous communities that would likely find themselves split into two parts during the project’s village-selection phase. This risk was found to be very high, given that: (a) the selection of beneficiary villages was to be carried out by municipal authorities whose interest was to spread the scarce project resources broadly across the municipality, not necessarily targeting neighbouring villages; (b) local indigenous norms dictate that all families in a community must benefit indiscriminately from any assistance; and (c) over half of the project beneficiaries were indigenous people.

In response, several mechanisms were introduced into the project targeting strategy to ensure that clear criteria and guidelines for the selection and prioritization of beneficiary communities were in place, based not only on vulnerability ratings, but also on considerations of indigenous administrative boundaries. A requirement was also introduced to include both indigenous and municipal authorities in the village selection process. In addition, the project decided to opt for a system of direct transfer of funds to communities, without the intermediation of municipalities. This inevitably carried political implications, as well as adding the administrative burden of officially registering new social investment units under national law. Nevertheless, the project design team and national partners were convinced by the social analysis findings that without such measures in place, the project would fail to reach its stated objectives and carry social and economic costs that would be too high to justify.

The example also shows that the process of social analysis contributes to building local ownership and consensus among the financing agency, the government and the intended beneficiaries around a particular project strategy.

BOX 1: Key messages
  • Social analysis is an essential tool that enhances the power of ARD to reduce poverty. 
  • It allows planners and practitioners to shift from focusing only on particular investments or technologies to putting people’s needs and priorities at the centre of development.
  • Social analysis starts from understanding the socio-economic context. Then it examines the dynamics of rural livelihoods, social diversity and gender in the context of agriculture and rural development. The findings of social analysis then guide the definition of the project/programme/plan design.
  • An integral part of equitable development is gender equality, achieved through: (a) gender equity (i.e. pursuing fairness and justice); and (b) gender empowerment (i.e. increasing the opportunities of women and men to control their lives).
  • Through social analysis, issues of social inclusion can be mainstreamed into all stages of the project cycle.

How is social analysis conducted?

Social analysis can be undertaken by sociologists, anthropologists, and gender and livelihood specialists at various stages in the programming, project and planning cycles. See sample TORs for Sociologist (Institutions, Gender and Targeting Specialist) below.

The sustainable livelihoods approach can be used as the conceptual framework for understanding the dynamics of rural livelihoods, social diversity and gender in the context of agriculture and rural development. Results of this analysis can lead to suggestions on how to build on the strengths, coping strategies and livelihood opportunities of the poor, of vulnerable households and of women, and to identify the key barriers that prevent them from achieving food security, developing resilience and overcoming poverty. A combination of indicators that measure poverty and deprivation can be used to describe and assess the many dimensions of poverty and to understand the causes, processes and levels of poverty among diverse population groups1 . During project design, the social scientist works with other team members, across disciplines, to ensure an appropriate fit between the project/programme strategy and the asset endowments and livelihood strategies of both non-poor and poor households. If poor households are unlikely to participate in project activities because of a lack of resources, suggestions will be made to adapt activities and make them more adoptable, affordable and less risky for poor households2 . 

Findings from social analysis should be summarized in a report that: (a) describes the project stakeholders and the social conditions in the project area; (b) determines whether social safeguard policies are triggered and, if so, proposes an appropriate mitigation plan; and (c) defines the target groups and designs targeting measures. Social analysis contributions inform the mission aide memoire and the sections of the design document dealing with poverty and gender issues, target groups, targeting measures, participatory processes and the design of inputs based on social analysis. Results of this analysis also contribute to the parts of the Project Implementation Manual (PIM) dealing with target groups, participatory planning processes, capacity building, community-based organizations (CBOs) and social safeguard strategies.

What follows in an overview of how social analysis is included in the different programme cycle stages. It is advisable to include social analysis as early as possible in the programme cycle.

The “upstream” stage: Before the programme cycle begins, the upstream stage comprises economic and poverty analysis, sector work and country strategy formulation. At this stage, the emphasis is on diagnosing and modeling alternative scenarios, based on variations in policies or the phasing in of reforms. A social assessment at this stage can help identify potential positive and negative effects – winners and losers – of policy reforms as well as possible safety nets and social mitigation measures to be introduced. 

Project concept/identification: Social screening involves the rapid review of proposals for new potential investments in order to identify social issues that need to be addressed during project design and implementation. All major multilateral agencies in agriculture and rural development screen new potential investments at the earliest stages of the programming cycle. For some international financing institutions (such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank and Inter-American Development Bank) mandatory social screening is done to determine whether or not potential investments are likely to trigger any safeguards. Projects triggering social safeguard policies include: land acquisition and involuntary resettlement; projects involving indigenous peoples, forest-dependent people or retrenched workers; and affordability of public services3 . For other agencies, such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme, the main purpose of social screening is proactive social targeting. The outputs of social screening include:

  • Classification of the future investment operation with regard to the likelihood of its triggering agency safeguard policies and the magnitude of the expected impact on affected people;
  • A list of issues to be addressed and a list of future social safeguard inputs required to comply with safeguard policies (when an operation is likely to trigger an agency policy or when it is not clear whether or not a policy might be triggered);
  • A list of social issues to be addressed and a plan for more detailed social investigations at later stages of the programming and project cycle (for operations that have explicit social development objectives);
  • A list of potential social issues for further (voluntary) consideration by the design team (for operations that do not trigger social safeguards and have no explicit social development objectives).

Project/programme design: There are two main areas of activity for social analysis inputs into design:

  • The design team undertakes a study of the farming (or production) systems and of the broader livelihood systems. They also cover poverty and gender analysis, organization and group profiles, stakeholder analysis, institutional assessment, participatory consultation and an analysis of the vulnerability context. To do all this, they may also draw on secondary data and consultations.
  • The social scientist uses the findings during project preparation to complete the design, phasing and costing of: (a) pro-poor participatory processes; (b) grassroots institutional arrangements; (c) poverty and gender targeting mechanisms; and (d) monitoring and evaluation (M&E) feedback systems. 

Responsibilities for social analysis in the design phase: The financing agency and the government are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the social analysis work is done properly. Social scientists are responsible for undertaking the analysis, while the project management unit is responsible for implementing the recommendations. The outputs of a social scientist on a programme design team include:

  • Written report, usually in the form of a working paper or annex to the project/programme preparation report, which describes project stakeholders and social conditions in the project area, determines whether social safeguard policies are triggered and, if so, designs an appropriate mitigation plan, defines the target groups and designs targeting measures.
  • In the context of a mission: Input to the mission aide memoire and to the sections of the design document dealing with poverty and gender issues, target groups, targeting measures, participatory processes and the design of inputs based on social analysis.
  • Contributions to the PIM dealing with target groups, participatory planning processes and capacities.

Appraisal: When social safeguards are involved it is important to: (a) examine whether the social analysis findings and mitigation plans are well-reflected in the appraisal documents; and (b) assess borrower commitment and readiness to implement the actions included in the mitigation plan. When social safeguards are not involved, a manager should: (a) assess the extent to which the project’s social design is realistic and implementable; and (b) establish the government’s understanding of and commitment to the project’s social objectives (see Safeguards). 

Board approval: For projects that trigger social safeguard policies, it is particularly important at this stage to enter into legal covenants. Through covenants, the financing agency can hold the borrower legally accountable for implementing the project’s mitigation or compensation plans. For projects that do not trigger social safeguard policies, it is more challenging to include aspects of social targeting (e.g. gender or nutrition-based targets) among the legal covenants, because enforcement is difficult. 

Implementation: The first full year of project/programme operation is crucial because experience will teach what is (or is not) working in poverty and gender targeting. The example below shows how a quick social analysis during implementation can lead to adjustment of the project. 

Under a project implemented in a country in southern Africa, a food company processed chillies for sale to national and European markets. Women cultivated them in small gardens, while men delivered the crop to the processing plant and collected the payment. Shortly after the purchase of the first crop, supplies of chillies decreased dramatically. This led to an inquiry about on-farm production methods to identify constraints. At this stage, a quick social assessment was carried out which found that married women farmers had abandoned chilli production because they were not receiving returns for their labour, since their spouses were retaining the proceeds. To increase incentives for women to produce chillies, the food company, along with a local horticulture development programme, designed a payment system that included both cash and non-cash rewards, and distributed a pound of sugar (a desirable household commodity) along with the cash payments.

The baseline survey (carried out early during the first year of operations) should include social and gender-focused questions [See M&E]. These should be incorporated into the logframe/results framework (as indicators of outputs, outcomes and impact) and tracked through the M&E system. Information on how to access the project’s resources should be communicated as widely as possible to ensure equal opportunities for participation. In demand-driven projects, social analysis should be built into project implementation, involving project staff and community facilitators actively in conducting participatory needs assessment and planning.

Evaluation: Different types of impact assessments, including participatory impact assessments, are conducted at project completion to address issues regarding inclusiveness, sustainability of benefits and socio-economic impacts. They may also be carried out during project implementation and at the mid-term review to assess project impacts from a social perspective. 

The types of resources needed to mainstream social analysis into the programme cycle may vary according to the context. The Figure below shows indicative costs that may apply in most cases. 

Social Analysis for Investment Plans, Policies and Strategies

In policy-based agricultural lending, the role of the social scientist is mostly upstream. The goal is to understand the likely impacts of policy reforms on the poor and avoid potential negative effects.
Some agencies carry out social impact analysis to assist policy-makers and government officials to better understand the social implications of policy reforms. Below is an example of social analysis in policy-based agricultural lending.

Social analysis was used to assess the potential positive and negative effects and the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of policy reforms in a country in Asia. Based on the findings of the analysis, the government approved the first National Forestry Action Plan, which included permanent transfer of ownership rights of forest resources to communities. The most immediate benefits were greater community participation and women’s involvement in non-timber forest product activities, new employment opportunities and increased economic incentives for local forest users and community forest committees.


  • Government understands the likely impacts of policy reform on the poor through the combined effects of changes in employment, prices, assets and taxes/subsidies
  • Possible negative impacts of policy reforms on the poor are avoided or mitigated


  • Mitigation plans prepared by the government meet financing agency standards
  • Mitigation measures successfully implemented
  • Number and percentage of affected people whose livelihood has been restored to pre-intervention levels

Social analysis of budgetary support programmes for the agricultural sector can help to better understand the likely social impact of public expenditure and policy reforms on poverty reduction and on food and nutrition security. Social analysis examines the likely social benefits of public expenditure on price supports and subsidies, agricultural research, agricultural extension/advisory services and capacity development, among others4. For information on monitoring the impact of national food and agricultural policies see http://www.fao.org/mafap/home/ar/.

Social analysis carried out early in the planning process can examine rural livelihoods and gender roles to assess which activities or services financed by the budget are most likely to benefit: (a) direct producers relative to government staff; (b) small producers relative to commercial producers; and (c) women relative to men. See the example below of social analysis in public expenditure review.

Social analysis was used in a review of public expenditure in support of the agricultural sector in an African country. It revealed that very few funds were set aside to improve access to credit for poor farmers under the Rural Finance Pillar. So, although funds were set aside for the development of financial institutions in rural areas, these were not accompanied by measures making lending to poor farmers attractive. Also, no funds were set aside to support rural institutions crucial for the country context, such as land tribunals or land reform offices. These have an important role to play for farmers who either do not understand their legal rights to land or do not have confidence in juridical systems to enforce these rights. This may in turn deter farmers from investing in infrastructure or perennial crops and may lead to reduced benefits from various public investments such as extension.


  • Greater percentage of public resources in agriculture expended on activities directly benefiting poor smallholder women and men (if public expenditure review and budget restructuring is done prior to and as a condition for budgetary support)



  • As a result of project-financed capacity building (if any), government and implementing agencies understand and correctly apply participatory procedures
  • x percent of Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) budget allocated to the small producer sector

Social analysis carried out prior to project design can improve the social inclusiveness of sector-wide approaches (SWAps) by strengthening poverty and gender targeting [See SWap]. See example below of social analysis in SWAPs5

Social analysis was carried out in a SWAp to increase rural competitiveness in a country in Asia. It identified the regions where economic activities were lagging, but where there was great potential for improvement. It also identified priority beneficiaries – in this case families living in relatively remote areas who had not been able to form producer organizations but had good potential for being linked up to the market. The analysis results helped in designing specific activities to better include small family farmers who had been identified as food- and nutrition-insecure, with seed capital investments, capacity building for both farmers and technical service providers, and complementary public investments (e.g. tertiary rural roads, extension and phyto-sanitary services). The analysis also helped in setting up a participatory M&E system.


  • Government formula for allocating funds to districts is less biased against poor districts and within districts
  • District agricultural planning process is more bottom-up
  • District staff and communities have enhanced capacity to plan and implement subprojects in their district development plans


  • Share of poor districts in project resources is not less than their population share
  • At least x percent of districts are able to qualify for enhanced block grants on the basis of performance assessments
  • Public agricultural research and extension services are more client-centred: x percent of research and extension topics originate from small-scale producers
  • As a result of project-financed capacity building, government and implementing agencies understand and correctly apply participatory procedures (if any)
  • M&E system of the MoA provides sex-disaggregated data on farmers trained and farmer groups contacted by extension

Manager’s Guide p. 30 (see below) details how the application of Social Analysis changes depending on the development approach and level of intervention, i.e. donor-led or government-led projects, SWAps, budgetary support or policy-based agricultural lending.

How should social analysis results be processed and used?

The timing of the written outputs of social analysis is vital in determining how well they can be used to benefit the desired programme/project social outcomes. A self-standing social analysis report must be done prior to design, with its main findings communicated effectively (even in draft form) to the design mission members. If the analysis is done too late, or if the findings are irrelevant or miscommunicated (which is a frequent problem), the opportunity of enhancing the social impact of a project/programme/plan will be lost.

Social analysis findings, recommendations and conclusions must be included in the main programme design document. As key decision-makers and reviewers focus their attention on the main report, there is a risk that the targeting and social design inputs may get overlooked, if they are only presented in a working paper or an annex. It is also important to ensure that the target group(s), targeting strategy and activities proposed, based on social analysis, are well integrated and incorporated into the logframe, work plan and budget, M&E system and PIM. To this end, it is important that the social analysis results are accurate, clearly organized, practicable and relevant to the project. 


1 See below Practitioner's Guide, p. 20 for more information.

2 See below Practitioner's Guide p. 40 for more information on wealth distribution and appropriate programme activities.

3 See below Table 1, Manager's Guide p. 21, on Safeguard Issues Relevant to the Agriculture Sector.

4 See below Manager’s Guide, Section 4: Social analysis within different development approaches for more information on social analysis in budgetary support programmes.

5 See below Social Development Issues In Sector-wide Approaches and Manager’s Guide, Section 4: Social analysis within different development approaches for more information on social analysis in the context of SWAPs.

Key Resources

Social analysis for agriculture and rural investment projects: Manager’s  Guide (FAO, 2011)

Sensitizes managers about the role of social analysis in the context of agriculture and rural development. Provides guidance on how to include social analysis in regular mission work.

Social analysis for agriculture and rural investment projects: Practitioner's Guide (FAO, 2011) 

Easy to use guide [for: National and international practitioners engaged in social analysis of ARD investment projects and programmes]
Equips those responsible for conducting social analysis with a conceptual framework, tools and checklists for conducting the fieldwork and designing project activities based on the findings.

E-learning course on "Social Analysis for agriculture and rural investment projects" (FAO, 2013)

Describes how to use social analysis (SA) in the project cycle, the sustainable livelihoods framework, the main entry points for conducting SA, and how to integrate the findings into the project design. 

Guidelines on Poverty and Livelihoods Analysis for Targeting
in IFAD-supported Projects (IFAD)

Describes how to conduct a poverty and livelihoods analysis, in order to deepen the understanding of the poverty dynamics and livelihoods of target groups. Analysis is used in the process of targeting project interventions to help determine who will engage in, and benefit from, the different activities to beundertaken.

Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability (STEPS) Centre, IDS

Offers a wealth of studies linking environmental sustainability with better livelihoods and health for poor people; and helping science and technology work for poverty reduction and social justice.

Social Development Issues In
Sector-wide Approaches (DFID, 1998)

Summarizes some of the issues in sector-wide approaches from a social development perspective and provides guidance for tools and methods to strengthen the social dimension of sector programmes.

Sample TORS for sociologist (Institutions, Gender and Targeting Specialist) on a project design mission (FAO, 2014)

Sample Terms of References

Knowledge platform on inclusive development policies

Explores ideas on how to achieve better research-policy linkages on economic transformation and inclusive development.